Death, dying and grief is overwhelming for all. There are so many unpredictable emotions and experiences during this time and knowing how to give sudden and unexpected news to children can be difficult. What we know is that the best person to give that news is the person who is closest to the children and who know and love them the most. Children need a sense of safety and source of comfort when hearing and holding bad news.
Depending on the age of your child, ensure you don’t give them too much information. Timing is also important, wait until they are well fed, after school/preschool and if possible, at a time when you can all come together. If you can, try to regulate and ground yourself first, so you can hold the space for a moment, when telling the news. If this is too hard, ask the next closest person to the children to help you do this. Keep your most sensitive child close to you, they will often be the ones to take off to their room and that’s ok. The more pragmatic child might need to ask more questions and that’s ok too.
it is very important to use the word died and not just ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to sleep’, especially for younger children (under 6) because they don’t have the cognitive capacity to understand less concrete concepts. A young child might become fearful of going to sleep if they are told that their loved one has gone to sleep and not woken up.
It is ok to say when someone has died that their body had an illness that made it stop working. This is a concept that little people can understand. Keep information simple and age appropriate and when your child has had more time to process the information, they can ask more questions. For older children it is ok to say how their body stopped working, but again, keep details age appropriate. Try not to speak too catastrophically around little people as the shock, especially of an unexpected death, can trigger a major threat to their sense of survival.
Pause and give your child a moment to process and take in what you have said. You will notice that for those children who understand death, there may be overwhelming tears and they may throw themselves into your arms as it is too big a thing for them to hold on their own. For really young children they may not understand the word death and dying, so you will need to help them understand that death doesn’t go away, for example “Grandma’s body has stopped working, she can’t breathe or move or cuddle you anymore”.
Don’t assume that every child will express their grief with overwhelming distress. Make room for those children who don’t show any distress, they are likely processing the information in small chunks in a way that their brain can deal with it.
Let them ask questions, if you don’t know the answers, it is ok to say “I don’t know but I will try to find out”. Let them know it is going to be a sad time for your family but that you will all be there together. Tell them that you might all need different things to cope with these sad times . Let them know it will hurt in your hearts, and that it will make you feel really angry or sad and that’s ok. Tell them that sometimes they will see mummy and daddy crying or feeling really sad and that’s ok too.
It is really important to reassure children that the loss of the loved one is NOT their fault. Children tend to quickly blame themselves. Reassure your child that you can help them with whatever big feelings come up and that you will all get through this together. The sense of connectedness and sharing in grief with each other will be comforting for all. Surround your children with people in their inner circle, those closest to them.
Offer whatever comfort you know your child will respond to, some will need more hugs and to stay close, more soothing and touch and others may need a little space or more distraction.
Keep their routine as close to normal as possible in the initial days and weeks, this will give some predictability at a time when they feel they have no control over what has happened. Try, if possible, to not remove young children from their primary caregiver during the initial period of loss.
Some children will become more clingy, they may regress in some of their developmental milestones like wetting the bed, be more upset more easily or demonstrate more tantrums. They might also express fear and worry that you might die too, all of these behaviours are normal reactions to losing a loved one. Comfort and reassure your child as best as you can in these moments. These fears and behaviours will gradually improve over time.
Talk to your children about the person they have lost, gather photos and memories and store them in a special box or album where your child can go to easily. Have photos around and visible. Invite your children to put things in the special box that have meaning to them. Buy them a toy or cuddle bear that they can talk to or hug when they feel sad. Plant a tree or create a space they can go to celebrate and remember their loved one.
Invite your children to draw pictures about how they are feeling and memories of their loved one. Notice that they will express their feelings through their play. Play is the most powerful way within which children process their grief. Make room for these experiences and resist the urge to direct how the play or drawings go. Read stories to your children about death, dying and recovery. Primary school aged children might like to write stories about their loved one or journal their feelings.
Give children a sense of safety to be able to talk about their feelings when they need to and note that girls will naturally want to talk more. Listen and validate their big feelings i.e. “I can see you are feeling really sad and it is ok to feel sad” and DON’T dismiss their feelings i.e. “Come on, Grandma would want you to be happy, you will be ok”.
Imagination and fantasy can be comforting and protective for younger children, so create a story that is in line with your values and beliefs i.e. Grandma now has a special star in the sky and when we miss Grandma we can find her in the sky and we can talk to her.
Openly celebrate important events such as birthdays for your loved one. Invite children to be involved and have some input into how you celebrate these special times.
If in time you are worried about your child’s response to loss, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. You can talk to your GP or a Psychologist or Grief Counsellor. I would suggest though, don’t jump too soon to do this(i.e. in the first few days or week) unless you are really concerned about your child’s response. It is important to give your child the sense that their big feelings are normal and that you as a family can hold them together. Do what you can to look after you too and seek support from your loved ones and or support people as you navigate through this difficult time.
NALAG (National Association for Loss and Grief) have a list of services on the Resources page that may be helpful. They have a branch in Dubbo and although they are not a crisis service, (They do not have a 24 hour phone line) and can refer people to the best type of local peer support groups for young people who have lost a parent.
Ph: (02) 6882 9222
Kids Help Line – This is a 24/7 service for a child who needs someone to talk to in a crisis situation; for children 5 years old through to young adults.
Ph: 1800 551 800